INTRODUCTORY
ESSAY:

“Release the Stars”

 

Plato's Timaeus: Translations
and Commentaries in the West

by Barbara Sattler

Until Henricus Aristippus’ translation of the Meno and the Phaedo in the 12th century, the Timaeus was the only text of Plato available in the Middle Ages in the Latin West. The picture of Plato dominant during this time was accordingly quite different to the one in antiquity or the one we have: Plato would be consulted especially for information about the natural world and questions of natural philosophy, since he was seen mostly as a scientific and technical author1. One important reason for the dominance of the Timaeus was that early translations and commentaries preserved knowledge of the text into the Latin Middle Ages. The first commentary seems to have been already written sometime between the second half of the fourth and the beginning of the third century BC by Crantor, a member of the Old Academy2. The first Latin translation was provided by Cicero in the first century BC (exhibit number 1); Kepler, at the turn from the 16th to the 17th century, quoted from this translation. However, Cicero translated only a part of the dialogue (Timaeus 27d-47b), so he omitted the beginning and the whole second half. The selection he did translate was probably meant for inclusion into his own unfinished dialogue on cosmology that was to have shown his mastery of what was regarded as one of the most difficult philosophical texts in Greek in his Latin translation3.

Roughly two hundred and fifty years after Cicero, Galen paraphrased and summarized parts of the Timaeus, now with a specific interest in the later parts (untranslated by Cicero) dealing with the origins of diseases4. Galen’s paraphrases turned out to be the most important source for the reception of the Timaeus in the Arab world, where it was considered, alongside the Republic and the Laws, the most important text by Plato5. A commentary from the same century (second century AD) was written, surprisingly, by a Peripatetic, Adrastus, and is partly preserved in Theon of Smyrna6.

But arguably the most influential translation for the Latin West is the translation in the 4th century AD by Calcidius (exhibit number 2); it was “the ‘pass’ for Plato’s work to travel on to the Middle Ages in the West”, especially between the 9th and the 12th century7. Calcidius’ commentary, which commonly accompanied the translation, was heavily read, in certain periods even more so than the translation itself8.

In the following century Proclus wrote his commentary on the Timaeus (exhibit number 4, the first printed edition of his commentary!) which is only partly preserved. But since it was not translated into Latin before William of Moerbeke in the 13th century9, it was much less influential during the Middle Ages in the Latin West than Calcidius’ commentary. However, it was taken up again and frequently cited by Marsilio Ficino10 as the notes referring to Proclus’ commentary in the 1536 Ficino edition (exhibit number 3) and the 1592 Ficino edition (exhibit number 8) illustrate. So in spite of the substantial influence of the Timaeus, it was only with Ficino in the 15th century that the Latin West got the first complete translation of the work (exhibit number 7), since Cicero and Calcidius11 had both omitted parts of it. Moreover, Ficino wrote not one but two commentaries on the Timaeus, the first of which, however, is not extant. The second commentary was first published in Ficino's 1484 Platonis Opera Omnia translation (exhibit number 6); and its final edition was published in his 1496 Commentaria in Platonem12.

While Ficino’s commentary seems to have been inspired by Neoplatonism, e.g. by Proclus’ comments, Ioannes Serranus’ translation from 1578 (exhibit number 5) tried to dissociate the Platonic text from its Neoplatonic interpretation prevalent up to that point. His Latin translation was printed by Henricus Stephanus alongside an edition of the Greek text of the Timaeus. It is this very edition that determined the pagination of the Platonic text still in use today. Soon the Timaeus was also published as a handy “travel book” (exhibit number 8) and translated into vernacular languages (exhibit number 9).



 

1 J. Marenbon, “Platonism - A Doxographic Approach: The Early Middle Ages”, in: The Platonic Tradition in the Middle Ages. A Doxographic Approach, ed. by S. Gersh and M. Hoenen, Berlin/New York 2002, pp. 67-89; and T. Ricklin, “Platon im zwölften Jahrhundert: Einige Hinweise zu seinem Verschwinden“, in the same volume, pp.139-163.

2 Proclus, In Tim. I 76, 1-2 Diehl who calls him the first exegete of Plato; J. Dillon, The Heirs of Plato, A Study of the Old Academy, Oxford 2003, p. 218 and H. Tarrant, Plato’s First Interpreters, Ithaca 2000, pp. 54-56.

3 M. Puelma, Cicero als Platon-Übersetzer, Museum Helveticum 37 (1980), pp. 136-178, especially p. 151-153; C. Lévy, “Cicero and the Timaeus”, in: Plato’s Timaeus as Cultural Icon, ed. by G. Reydams-Schils, Notre Dame 2003 and M. Lemoine, “Le Timée Latin en dehors de Calcidius”, in: Langages et philosophie, Hommage à Jean Jolivet, ed. by A. de Libera, A. Elamrani-Jamal and A. Galonnier, Paris, 1997, p. 64.

4 M. Lemoine, op. cit., p. 65

5 D.N.Hasse, “Plato arabico-latinus: Philosophy – Wisdom Literature – Occult Sciences”, in: The Platonic Tradition in the Middle Ages, ed. by S. Gersh and M. Hoenen, Berlin/N.Y. 2002, p. 32 and R. Klibansky, The Continuity of the Platonic Tradition during the Middle Ages, London 1981, p.14.

6 F. M. Cornford, Plato´s Cosmology, The Timaeus of Plato Translated with a Running Commentary, London 1948, p. 45.

7 G. Reydams-Schils’ introduction in: Plato’s Timaeus as Cultural Icon, Notre Dame 2003, p. 9.

8 P.E Dutton, “Medieval Approaches to Calcidius”, in: Plato’s Timaeus as Cultural Icon, ed. by G. Reydams-Schils, Notre Dame 2003, pp. 183-205.

9 J. Hankins and A. Palmer, The Recovery of Ancient Philosophy in the Renaissance: A Brief Guide, Florence, forthcoming 2007, p. 17 (I am grateful to J. Hankins for letting me consult the manuscript before its actual publication) and J. Brams and W. Vanhamel, Guillaume de Moerbeke: Recueil d’études à l’occasion du 700e anniversaire de sa mort 1286, Leuven, 1989.

10 J. Hankins, “The Study of the Timaeus in Early Renaissance Italy”, in: Natural Particulars: Nature and the Disciplines in Renaissance Europe, ed. by A. Grafton and N.G. Siraisi, Cambridge (Mass.) 1999, p. 86.

11 At least as far as we know the translation was by Calcidus. That his partial translation was nevertheless still influential even after Ficino’s complete translation had been published can be seen from the fact that his translation was still used in a 17th century edition (cf. exhibit 2).

12 M. Allen, “The Ficinian Timeus and Renaissance Science”, in: Plato’s Timaeus as Cultural Icon, ed. by G. Reydams-Schils, Notre Dame 2003, p. 247.

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The University of Illinois Library